- Aug 31, 2016
- Frostbite Falls, MN
As the worms turn (in my composting bin)
by Jessica Stolzberg | New York Times | 17 April 2020
My relationship with trash changed for the better from the first banana peel I kept out of it.
No one told me there would be worms. But I didn’t give in to squeamishness. Nor lack of confidence. The dirt-filled secret turned out to be that I can compost, and the results, requiring neither rigor nor aptitude, are stunning.
I also didn’t know composting would be so soothing during a pandemic.
In these mounting weeks of self-isolating, many of us are seeking and finding solace in the natural world. For me, this comfort extends to my backyard composting, which thrives as my family eats and snacks through each day at home, now and into a near future that unfurls with uncertainty.
I’ve never considered our food supply chain so intensely: where our sustenance comes from, whether there will be enough through this crisis, who touches it before it gets to us (and if our heroic grocers are being properly compensated), and how we should handle it once it’s home. We now wash our fruits and vegetables with soap and warm water.
I take this one more step, beyond our nourishment, and deliver what we don’t consume back to the earth.
I’ve been composting imperfectly but effectively for six years, and I do it with a basic composting bin out my back door. I altered my relationship with trash from the first banana peel I kept out of it.
Consider the common salad: one bounty is headed to the table, the other — a colorful mass of peels, cores, rinds and stems — goes into a countertop container. Ready to rot, it’s a visual reminder of the sheer volume of what will never be closed inside a plastic bag and burned in an incinerator or dropped onto a landfill.
In the last month, the planet as we know it has shifted under our feet and will probably shift again. The coronavirus is showing us what global fragility looks like, though the planet’s health has been struggling for some time as it continues to warm from the burning of fossil fuels. Environmental regulations are being rolled back. Recycling programs are faltering, and it’s unclear how we’ll manage our excessive quantities of plastics. The outlook can feel bleak.
We need to reduce our output of waste. Composting is a simple and fruitful method of doing that. It’s also an antidote to eco-despair and its sibling, eco-paralysis, which often take the form of a question: “What can I alone do?” or “How do I begin?”
Someone told me recently she was daunted by the process of composting, to which I replied, “What process?”
I keep a lidded stainless steel vessel (previously an ice bucket) on the counter that fills up within a day or two, depending on what’s for dinner and how much fruit my kids have polished off. (I trained my family fairly easily with a sign on the kitchen trash can and a few days of redirected apple cores.) I follow a basic home composting rule: If it comes from the earth, yes. If it walks or swims the earth, no.
When it fills, I take my countertop loot outside to the compost bin, nestled next to a tree at the back of our quarter-acre. I twist off the bin’s top (my simple unit reminds me of a supersize Darth Vader helmet) and, with a level of satisfaction I don’t always achieve in the other corners of my day, toss in my scraps. I throw on some dry leaves I’ve corralled since fall (a perk — we have far less to bag). Next time I’m there, I give the compost a couple of pokes and a swirl with the turning tool and admire all the worms that have arrived to feast and do their fine work. They seem so happy inside, devouring our leftovers, and it makes me happy to see them.
If the compost seems gooey, I add extra leaves; if it seems dry, I don’t. The contents break down quickly in summer, which makes space to fill the bin back up in winter. Once a year, out the bottom hatch comes homemade fertilizer, dark and crumbly and unscented, flecked with an occasional produce sticker. I gleefully deposit it around the plantings in my yard, or perhaps into a freshly dug hole for a new shrub or tree.
In doing just this little with so much, our curbside trash has been cut in half and is remarkably light. We don’t need the second day of trash pickup our town provides, which means a truck that idles less.
I recently weighed the citrus rinds, cucumber peels, coffee grounds and other kitchen detritus collected in two days by my family of four and it came to 4.3 pounds. I did the math for a week, then a year, then six, and felt something that could only have been eco-joy.
This is at my fingertips, or just beyond the blade of my paring knife, every single day.
Right now, as we continue to heed the call to stay home, the planet is displaying signs of renewed health. Satellite views reveal an atmosphere convalescing in reduced emissions from cars on land and planes across the sky, startling proof of what’s possible when we humans ease up. We are acquiring less, walking more and delighting in spring blooms and bright stars — small, essential gifts.
Earth Day this year will be without gatherings. To celebrate at home, consider keeping your first banana peel out of the garbage. I promise it will feel good and meaningful, both in the here and now and well beyond. Composting allows for a connection to food, to waste, to nature breaking things down just as intended, and to the revelry that comes with allowing it to happen.
When we emerge from the turmoil of this pandemic, perhaps scathed but no less able, may we maintain our enhanced connection, and take seriously our responsibility to this planet and its soil.